That Little Blue Boy
It's almost a cliché, really. Mom and Dad waving sadly, but smiling, as their young daughter puts the family's second-hand car into gear and backs out of the driveway. She's leaving home, for good this time, to make her fortune and her future. Dad, not quite knowing what to say, yells, "Don't forget to check the oil!" The daughter looks lovingly at both parents and smiles. They think they notice a tinge of uncertainty in her smile, and she thinks the same about them.
Now, my father has never been one to worry about something as ordinary as an oil change. Back in 1978, he used to brag that he hadn't changed the oil in his Honda Civic in 52,000 plus miles. "Though," he'd add, "I'll admit to adding a quart or two . . . here and there . . . when necessary." But even so, what he yelled to me as I left home for the first time seemed extreme, even for him: "If the car catches on fire, pull over to the side!" With more than a tinge of uncertainty, I slammed on the brakes.
"What? What then? What do I do then?"
"Wait 'til the fire goes out," he said, looking at me like I was the crazy one for asking. I should tell you that my father has always had love affairs with his cars, but they're not the sort of relationships based on trust and commitment. He's not one of those faithful men who lovingly change spark plugs, belts, or oil on a Saturday morning, though I suppose the oil goes without mentioning. He's more of what you might call a car gigolo, and a bargain basement one at that. He trades fast and loose, moving from one cheap used car to another. It's all about surface to him. But to his credit, he doesn't necessarily use beauty as a benchmark; he's much more interested in style, in little eccentricities he's never seen in a car, in a car he can discuss with his friends. He's all kiss and tell and very popular at the water cooler.
For instance, take the Ford Falcon, the one prone to catching fire. The car was twenty years old when my father bought it for eight hundred dollars from an elderly woman living on a fixed income. Sitting in her rocker and wearing a shawl, she flipped through the bills, looked my father in the eye and said, "I got me a heck of a deal." The Falcon was red with a white top and, once cranked, drove about thirty miles per hour (no more, no less) whether you had your foot on the gas or not. "Comes with its own built-in cruise control," my father beamed proudly. And, yet, he still was stopped for speeding in that car.
"How'd you do it?" my sister asked. She was actually the one who finally drove this car, eventually making it her own, at least spiritually. She couldn't see over the steering wheel so she steered by looking in the tiny opening between it and the dashboard. Fortunately, she left town immediately after high school. Otherwise, she was well on her way to becoming what people in our parts refer to as a "character." She clearly had the genetic makeup. "How'd you find a place where you could speed in the Falcon?" she repeated, a note of awe in her voice.
"Oh, the police are always after me for one thing or the other." It was true. I would put him in the same category as Tom Sawyer. Aunt Polly never minded if she had punished the boy falsely because she knew he was guilty of something, or would be soon enough. My father was particularly negligent in deadlines, with things like renewing his license, tags, or inspection stickers. He had brake problems, too. And he never saw all that much need for windshield wipers.
"But where did they catch you speeding?" my sister insisted.
"In the parking lot of Community Cash."
"Ah," she nodded her head in understanding. "Parking lots are hard. Helps if you stand on the brakes."
Even more than the cruise control and the fire potential, what bothered me most about the car was the driver's side window. Without warning, it would suddenly crash into . . . well . . . wherever windows go when you roll them down. It dropped fast, like a guillotine, and sounded like a hand grenade exploding on a tin roof. Sometimes you could roll the window back up, sometimes not—at least not until it was ready. This could be inconvenient in a driving rainstorm or, most especially, in the Squeaky Clean drive-through car wash, but I only did that once.
Early into my first year of college, and after I'd given the Falcon back to my father, trading it for the Honda with no oil, my mom called and asked if I was hungry for a home-cooked meal. What that meant in our family was picking up hamburger steak plates from Ricky's Diner. Mom thought it was important to patronize Ricky's since they were the only place left in town that still allowed smoking. Mom loved a Virginia Slims menthol and a cup of coffee after dinner. Plus, Ricky's had the best food in town. "Listen," she added, "your father has just bought a yellow Datsun. Picked it up at work, from Harry Tilbert. Belonged to Harry's uncle's cousin by marriage or something like that. Your dad will want you to see it. I think you'll like this one." So that Saturday afternoon, I made the thirty-minute trip home, bringing along a college friend whose folks lived five hours away in Atlanta, too far for a day trip. She was a physics major who later studied the planets . . . something about the rings of Saturn . . . how they tilted . . . for her Ph.D. work at the University of Virginia.
My father was rocking in his porch swing when we pulled into the driveway. He yelled, "Don't park behind the Datsun. I'm taking it to the car wash. You girls want to go with me? Could use your help."
I looked at my friend and she seemed game, so I yelled back, "Sure, if I can drive." He nodded his head and pulled the keys from his pocket. On the way, my father explained from the back seat that he wanted to wash the engine and that he needed someone to keep the car running. He wasn't taking it to the Squeaky Clean, but to a self-serve car wash on the bypass.
"Won't be easy starting a car that has a wet engine, so keep it going," he reiterated as I drove the car into the wash area. I opened the door and my father crawled out of the backseat. He raised the hood, put a dollar's worth of quarters into the machine, grabbed the spray gun, and started cleaning the engine.
Keeping the car running turned out to be no small feat. It sputtered and spit as the water hit the engine. Every time it gasped for its last breath, my father reached his hand around the hood and pointed up with his thumb. "Give it more gas," he'd yell.
"Right," I'd yell back, and rev it up again. A minute or two later, my friend and I were talking about a movie we'd both seen, when an enormous explosion went off underneath the hood and some big steel thing, about the size of a football, went hurling through the air. The car gave one last sputter, then went dead.
I quickly rolled down the window. "You okay, Dad? You okay?" He didn't answer immediately, but finally stuck his hand around the hood and made the okay sign. We watched him walk into the backyard of a small, white house that bordered the car wash, lift the part out of a neatly trimmed boxwood, and come back to the car. My friend and I were speechless.
My father lowered the part to the window to give us a good view and with his eyebrows knotted asked, "Either one of you happen to know what this thing is?" It looked like a small spaceship connected to a fairly wide pipe. Pretty, really, except that the pipe was still smoking from the bottom where it had been blown from the car.
"Sorry, Dad, never seen one of those before." I looked over at my friend, thinking her background in physics might be of some help in solving this mystery, but my friend had turned away and had started laughing like . . . like Mary Tyler Moore in the episode about the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.
And with that, I went into a type of shock. The whole event became a turning point for me, a moment of realization. What, for my whole life, I had considered all in a day's work for my father, I could suddenly see was . . . comical . . . abnormal . . . peculiar . . . to the average American household. Apparently other families didn't engage in these sorts of activities. I flashed back to a few weeks before, to a Friday afternoon chemistry lab that had just wrapped up. I was hanging out with five or six other students and we were talking about our plans for the weekend when I mentioned that I was driving home that night. I had the Honda by this time, but its oil issues were no longer at the forefront.
One red-headed student who lived on my hall announced to the others, "And her car doesn't even have brakes!" I looked at her kindly, thinking that her uptight approach to life must have caused her a great deal of angst.
"No big deal," I answered, "I only have one stop." Now there I was, an adult entering higher education, who thought my answer was completely reasonable and who didn't understand why everyone else was laughing.
End of flashback. My father is standing there holding a steel part that has just exploded from his car, my friend is laughing herself sick, and I'm paralyzed and stupefied as my vision gains clarity: we were laughing stocks, the white trash of the American automotive world. I'm sitting in that car looking like a Flannery O'Connor character who has just received salvation through violent means and wants nothing of it.
I never recovered. Not really. No amount of therapy could help me make sense of these patterns of my childhood, never mind help me break them. Initially, I blamed my failures on my father; my car buying mistakes were obviously his fault, especially since he insisted on tagging along with me to the car dealer. Once, he talked me into buying the Hair Hopper, the only car we ever named. I decided on the name while watching the movie Hairspray, where Ricki Lake plays a 1960s teenage dancing sensation who sports a nifty bouffant. In a less than complimentary way, other characters refer to her as a hair hopper.
Actually, I didn't buy this particular set of wheels from a dealer but from a sweet cousin of mine who was also a mechanic. His mother-in-law wanted to sell her car, so my dad and I drove the two hours to where she lived. My cousin met us there and tried to warn me that I might encounter a slight problem in starting the car in the morning, but otherwise, the car was in good shape. And he was right. I never had a single moment of trouble with that car, except when starting it.
While I've repressed a lot about the Hair Hopper, I remember some of its characteristics clearly. It was an early '80s Plymouth. Not one of those K cars from the time, but similar to them in its boxy style and shape. The exterior was gray and the interior a rich maroon made of a comfortable soft cloth, velvety to the touch, like the Shriners might use to cover their bar furniture. The only problem with the upholstery was that it attracted every strand of hair within a quarter of a mile.
But the upholstery, though partly responsible for the car's name, was secondary to the ignition problem. And it wasn't that the car wouldn't start. Just the opposite. For the first five minutes after you turned the key, the car roared with power. A kind of Supersonic Turbo Idle. If you had put any other car into drive at this point, you'd have immediately taken off down the road at forty, maybe fifty miles per hour. But the Hair Hopper had a safety catch: during these five minutes, if you had the audacity to attempt driving it, it jumped and . . . well, hopped . . . all over the road. It felt like you were riding a bull in the rodeo. Looked like it, too.
I guess I should have always waited the five minutes before putting the car into gear, but running late for a wedding when you're the maid of honor or for the finals of a softball tournament when you're the pitcher or for work, knowing your boss will be waiting at the door doing that annoying watch tapping thing . . . all of these can wear on you, give you a hole in your stomach, make your heart race. So you think that maybe this one time will be different, that this one time the car will fore go its obligatory warm-up. But it doesn't really matter because if you can skip the car even fifty yards down the road in those five minutes, you'll at least be that much closer to the wedding or to work—your chiropractic bill, the other drivers on the road, and the giggling neighbors be damned.
In hindsight, I suppose I should have called Car Talk, but having those two fellows making fun of me on national radio seemed unbearable. Plus, I was afraid I'd break down and start recounting the tale of my maddening life with cars. I decided instead to sell the Hair Hopper and to embark on a journey of self-examination where I might receive insight and self-awareness, maybe even healing. I decided to search for the root of the problem. I knew that, as always, I had to begin with my father.
Something, I reasoned, must have happened in his childhood or as he was growing into manhood that could explain his erratic and reckless approach to the American car driving experience, a journey that for other people had been the source of great books, great movies, great songs and poems. Why had my father never found his Route 66?
To begin my search, I signed up for a spiritual retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. After a weekend of silence and fasting, I found the answer. Or thought I had. "I'm saved," I rejoiced. "Hallelujah and Amen." I paid up my balance, thanked the guru, the maid, and the minister of the local Methodist Church and walked to the car a free and transformed woman.
My revelation in the mountains came in the form of a memory. And what I remembered was the time, I must have been four or five, when my father was away on a business trip and staying in a little motel in Vidalia, Georgia. The driver of a huge tobacco truck was staying there, too, and had parked his truck on a grassy hillside about thirty yards across from my father's room. But he'd forgotten to set the emergency brake and, as passersby later described it, his truck began slowly rolling over the slope and then picked up speed as it "hauled ass" down the hill and across the parking lot of the motel. "Honey, it was a sight to behold," an older woman with a Gatlinburg tote bag told a local reporter. "That truck . . . well, you can see for yourself how big it is . . . comes tearing down the hill like it had just found Jesus and smashes right into the back of that Chrysler. Parts of that car just now landing in Atlanta. But, I tell you what, was a good thing that car was there . . . and the motel, too. If that truck had kept rolling, it'd of taken out the whole town." The article and the woman's photo appeared on the front page of the paper. She was standing next to the truck. She had her tote bag draped neatly across her right arm.
My father had his own photos, including one that showed the tail end of the car sticking out of the motel room. My sister said it looked like Winnie the Pooh stuck in the rabbit hole. My mom said the picture begged the question of what, exactly, happened to the front end? So my father gave us the inside perspective.
He said he'd come in hot and tired from work, so he took off everything but his underwear and lay down to take a nap. A storm was brewing outside. He'd just nodded off when he heard a sickening loud crunch and the sound of shattering glass. And that's when his car came flying towards him through the window. Logically enough, he assumed that a tornado had struck so he dove for the bathroom, slammed the door behind him, and jumped into the tub. He sat there a moment before deciding to pull a mattress from the other bed (the one not currently occupied by the car) to protect himself in the tub. But when he opened the bathroom door, he heard the owner of the motel and a group of onlookers calling for him through the hole in the wall. "Mr. O'Dell, Mr. Barry O'Dell, you okay in there?"
"Mr. O'Dell, you in there? You breathing?"
As you might imagine, I was thrilled to remember this story, to connect this piece of my father's history to his more recent actions. "This has to be the event that had established his relationships with cars," I reassured myself. "He must have had some sort of existential moment in that motel room where the world no longer made sense, had no order. He'd have to make his own meaning in a chaotic and unpredictable world, and the meaning he created for himself was his own version of carpe diem. Live for today, because you never know when you'll be napping in your underwear and a tobacco truck will send your car flying towards you through a motel window."
A few mornings later, over a banana pudding and coffee at Ricky's, I reminded my mother of this story and how it had given me tranquility and. . . .
She stopped me in mid-sentence. "Dear, it's a good theory and all, but I don't think it's quite right. I just mean it might need a few adjustments."
"What . . . what do you mean?"
"It's just that he had problems well before then." She used her fingers to make quotation marks as she said problems.
"What sort of problems?" I didn't see the need for quotes.
"Well, car problems, of course. I suppose technically he's not limited to cars. He doesn't do well with most anything on wheels. Don't even get me started on those two golf carts. You won't remember this, but about a year and a half after we married—you were only six weeks old—your father went into the Army. He'd been in Clemson's ROTC Program and was required to serve a few years after graduation. So we packed up all our stuff (mostly clothes and wedding gifts) into a U-haul and the three of us took off for a base in Oklahoma. I'd never even been out of South Carolina, except for a few trips to North Carolina. And I'd always had my family around me . . . your grandmother, aunts and uncles, and all of my own aunts, uncles, and cousins.
"About the time we got to eastern Tennessee, just past the Smokies, I wanted to stop for a Coke. Your father was thirsty, too. Plus, he wanted to check the inside of the trailer to make certain nothing had come loose. So we pulled into the parking lot of a little mom and pop place. I took you into the restaurant while your dad opened the back. He followed us in a minute or so, saying everything looked fine. The cooks had been frying chicken and baking bread. Smelled so good, we decided to stay for supper. I guess we were there about an hour or so. By the time we left, it was cold and dark outside, being only two days after Thanksgiving and all. We hurried to the cab and your dad quickly flipped on the heat. I had wrapped you up and was holding you close. Did you know you ended up with double pneumonia out there?
"We drove and drove and drove until we pulled into a Howard Johnson's about an hour east of Memphis. We checked in, I took the key and opened the room, and your dad went to the trailer to bring in our suitcases. I heard a long and high-pitched . . . I don't know . . . wail . . . for lack of a better word. I grabbed you up and ran outside. To make a long story short, let's just say your father had scattered all our worldly belongings across the great state of Tennessee."
"What happened? Did he leave the door open?"
"Well, at the very least, he didn't bolt it."
"You lost all your wedding gifts?"
"Every last one except the glass punch bowl your great Aunt Ruth gave us and that's only because we didn't take it. I didn't think we'd need it out in Oklahoma. I suppose it wasn't such a big deal, losing all that stuff, I mean. I'd have smashed the china anyway, out of sheer madness. It's that wild, incessant . . . " she was searching for words . . . "unrelenting wind out there. It never stops. I'm telling you it never stops. Drove me half crazy." She put her hands over her ears and shook her head, like she was trying to shake away the noise.
"Mom, focus," I said. She dropped her hands, composed herself, picked up her napkin, and wiped the corner of her mouth. "Anyway, the thing I've always regretted losing the most," she said, smiling sheepishly and looking into her coffee, "was a painting I'd done. Don't laugh, but it was a paint-by-number. Of that little blue boy. You know, the one people frame next to the little pink girl? I loved that thing."
"You mean the Gainsborough painting?"
"I think so. I'm not really sure who did it, but your grandparents used to have a huge copy of the boy hanging above that piano they gave us. They had the girl, too." Somehow I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Knowing my mother had grown up poor and had never had the resources, or the confidence, to develop her talents (and she was, as it turned out, a good artist) and that she had never been the domestic type (a toaster would hardly have meant much to her), I could see how the loss of that little blue boy would have been difficult for a nineteen-year-old leaving home and heading to Oklahoma in a U-haul with a six-weeks-old baby.
Her story hit an emotional funny bone inside me. In fact, at that moment, I knew that before my knowledge was complete, I'd feel the presence of some sort of cosmic funny bone. I couldn't have explained why. I certainly didn't understand, so I put the cosmos out of my head for the time being.
"Mom, I'd totally forgotten, but do you remember when Dad and I went to pick up that piano? Remember how he rented one of those small U-haul trailers and connected it to the car?"
"Vaguely, I guess. Remind me." The event had occurred when I was eight-years-old. My father and I were driving to his parents' home to load their piano into the trailer. My grandparents didn't have their daughter around to play it anymore and since I was to start piano lessons in a few weeks, they agreed to let us borrow it. We were heading down the country road to their house when our car was hit from behind. I grabbed the door handle. We were hit again and again and again. I was thinking that someone was driving behind us, behind the trailer, ramming us on purpose. But then my father smiled in a crooked, very unsteady, way. He tapped the brakes, slowing the car down gradually.
"It's the trailer," he said. "Don't worry, it's just the trailer. It's come undone from the car."
"Then make it stop," I screamed.
"Slowly, or it will come straight through the window." We bounced around a bit longer. Turns out you really shouldn't use a car to stop other moving vehicles. You'd have thought he'd have learned that in Georgia.
"Yes, I remember now," my mother said. She flicked her cigarette ashes into the ashtray, took another long draw, then exhaled. "You poor thing. Wasn't worth all that, hindsight being 20/20 and all. You never did take to the piano."
No debate there. After six years of lessons, all I could play was 'Chopsticks,' 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' and a rousing rendition of 'Born Free.'"
The following Friday, as I was driving back to the retreat, I thought about the impact of my father's life on other members of the family. My mother, I believed, was in denial, which I also believed was the sanest of her options. My sister, I was worried, had been permanently scarred. Perhaps the point should have been self-evident when, on her driving test, she chose the answer "put the vehicle in neutral and float through it" when asked what she would do if she encountered a flooded road. Though in her defense, she had taken her driver's test long before the National Weather Service had come out with its pithy phrase "Turn Around, Don't Drown."
But there was also the situation . . . this was years later, after my sister had started her first job . . . involving the policeman who worked a busy intersection near Charlotte. He'd be out early, before sunrise, about the time my sister would drive by in her Frito Lay truck. I don't know what had originally happened between the two of them, but as she explained it, he never attempted to stop her. He'd just fall to his knees, clasp his hands, and pray as she drove through the intersection.
You would have thought my father would have been the perfect driving teacher for her, especially after he bought a 1950s fire truck. They could have run over a small building without knowing it and certainly without harming themselves. But nothing could have been further from the truth. The words he most often spoke during that time of his life were blood pressure, stomach acid, and Valium. He was always unconsciously clutching at his heart, and I suppose he kind of burped a lot.
Fortunately, my sister isn't one to be easily offended, though she does prefer that people talk behind her back so that she doesn't feel the need to change anything. She kept driving and whenever the police would stop her for an infraction, for something like her tendency to swerve for no reason, she'd say, "Oh, I thought you were pulling me over because the tags are out-of-date or because the brakes are kinda' iffy." At that point, the officer would step back from the car and look it over. "You Barry's kid?" My sister would smile and nod. "Get in the squad car. I'm taking you home." Then he'd give my father a ticket.
So there I was that night, watching the moon rise over the Blue Ridge Mountains, when I began wondering if these driving peculiarities were inherited or learned. The whole nature versus nurture thing. I'd seen the impact of my father on his daughters, so I thought I'd look back at his own father. But what I found, or didn't find, only baffled me more.
When my father was three-years-old, my grandfather left for World War II, where he served three years as a paratrooper in the Pacific branch of the 101st Airborne Division. My father was old enough to know and remember his father, but not old enough to understand his absence. What do you tell a three-year-old? How do you explain to him that you're going away?
"But that's my whole life. I'm three," he said, holding up three fingers.
After my grandfather returned from the war, their relationship grew into one of increasing confusion and complexity, almost stereotypically so. But they loved each other in spite of all the gnashing of teeth. My grandfather was a quick-tempered and quick-moving, let's-do-it-now-and-let's-do-it-right sort of man. My father was . . . something else.
And while my father could admire his father's All-American virility, my grandfather had no idea what to do with my father or even how to think about him. Later in life, he was proud of my father's college education, though a part of him also distrusted it.
On the night my father bought his Honda Civic, he had actually been car shopping with his father. God knows how, but he talked my Buick-loving grandfather into buying a Civic of his own. It was Christmas Eve. The salesmen were drunk and were willing to sell both cars as a package for some ridiculously low price, so my father and grandfather bought the cars on the spot. From my memories of that time, I think my grandfather allowed my parents to bring him into the '70s. My father talked him into this small, foreign car, my mother bought him a leisure suit, and they both introduced him to Chinese food, which he'd sworn he'd never eat. Turned out, he loved them all. Pretty soon, he was wearing his leisure suit (with an open-collared, multi-colored satin shirt) and driving his Civic thirty minutes to the nicest Chinese restaurant in the area. But you can be sure his Honda didn't go 52,000 miles without an oil change.
The next summer my father decided to resign from his job and move us all back to his hometown, where his parents lived and where my mother had left in a U-haul nearly fifteen years earlier. My father had spent those years managing various textile mills in small South Carolina and Georgia towns. He was growing tired and disillusioned with his work. So when my grandfather began discussing retirement, my father listened closely to that secure and familiar something that was calling him home. My grandfather owned a mill hill café that his father had built earlier in the century, and my father was prepared to buy it and follow in their footsteps. The café did a good business and my father thought it could support his wife, children, and parents until my grandfather was ready to retire. The retirement date was set for somewhere around the time that my father had learned the ropes. But the plan just didn't work out.
My grandfather couldn't understand why my father wanted to improve the place: "If it ain't broke. . . ." He walked around shaking his head and muttering, "He should think less and work more. A hell of a lot more." For my father's part, he didn't understand why his father doubted him. Over the years, he'd successfully supervised hundreds of people at a time, not just ten or twelve.
After a year or so of hard—and, I think, of hurt—feelings between the two, my father left the business and found a position in a local textile plant. They needed time and space away from each other. And they were to get it.
Not long after my father left the café, our phone rang with the news that my grandfather had been killed in his Honda. A young kid had hydroplaned in a summer thunderstorm, killing my grandfather and one of his employees instantly. They were returning from a cattle auction.
None of us slept that night. The next morning I saw my father sitting alone at the kitchen table and crying. It's the only time I've ever seen him cry. I remember watching him and not knowing what to do. I quietly walked back to my bedroom.
The mountain air had grown cold out on the porch of the small cabin, so I pulled a wool blanket around me. My questions about my family were growing darker. I no longer cared much about our abnormal behavior, but about what made us so very normal and ordinary. I pictured my father again at that kitchen table and wondered what he must have been thinking. Was he blaming himself for his father's death, for convincing his father to buy the car in the first place? Was he feeling regret and grief for not repairing their relationship? Was he agonizing over why he had been spared while his father, who kept his cars, his home, his life in good repair, had been taken? Was he simply that heartbroken three-year-old missing his father?
I suppose prophets and disciples have argued that the cosmos works best through our weaknesses, that its power is made perfect in them. Comforting when your Honda runs on a penny and a prayer, but not when your father goes and gets himself killed in one. The car was totaled, but its oil was the color of honey. My grandfather was a hard worker and kept his house in order. Everyone said so.
I don't know. I could never figure it out. Of course I realize that I'm not supposed to understand the unknowable, inexplicable parts of human experience, that it's beyond me and so forth. But I just can't get this thing out of my mind. Maybe my sister was right all along. Maybe the best way to survive really is to put your vehicle in neutral and float through the flood.
Darlene O'Dell published Sites of Southern Memory: The Autobiographies of Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, Lillian Smith, and Pauli Murray with the University Press of Virginia and the novel I Followed Close behind Her with Spinsters Ink. She has also published in Cobblestone, written headnotes for The Pearson Custom Library of American Literature, and served as the National Park Service's head writer for Jamestown Archaeology. She has taught at Clemson University and the College of William and Mary and currently lives in Brevard, North Carolina.